Over the coming week there will appear on Critical Legal Thinking a series of posts on the theme “Punk, Law, Resistance”. The idea for this series was inspired by some of the highly creative forms of protest that have recently taken place in the UK by, for example, the Book Bloc and UK Uncut. But why Punk? Wasn’t Punk just some flash in the pan music scene from the 1970s? What relevance could it possibly have to the critique of law and politics today?
The writer and artist Deirdre King, in an essay published in Punk; A Directory of Modern Subversive Culture (London: Hollow Contemporary Art 2007), has this to say on the matter:
Punk has always been anti-establishment, a subversive form of protest against the status quo through outrageous and confrontational music, visuals and behaviour. At its inception it was a guttural protest from the margins about inequality, unemployment and exclusion, and a rejection of the mythologies of the hippy dippy values of rock and peace which hid those realities. Its attack took place through and against the cultural milieu. Punk didn’t belong to that mainstream; already ‘outside’, it raged against the society that had marginalized it. It was the voice of the disaffected; it articulated disenchantment with the mythologies supporting the contemporary ideology; its language and images dismantling the lies by subverting them. In a raw and visceral form, Punk was ideology critique: an onslaught against the myths of a nascent globalised economy.
Times have changed and Punk has evolved; poverty, inequality and injustice still exist, but their distributions and structures are different. If early Punk under Thatcher was dealing with the effects and ideology of a nascent globalised economy, then Punk today has to deal with that same system in full flight. The mythologies, whilst different, are still there, seducing, deluding and sedating us, everlastingly ripe for dismantling.
Punk, to be punk, has to hit where it hurts; to subvert the establishment and its mythologies wherever it finds them and in whatever style is appropriate. It should hurt to hear and be ugly. Its essence is discomfort and confrontation. Most of all, it has to have Punk’s most potent characteristic: a nihilistic self destruction that jeopardized its own survival (original Punk only survived a couple of years); to damn itself along with everything else that was its target. Today, that violence and ugliness can’t be reworked as an institutionalized ‘style’, Punk gone mainstream, Johnny Rotten minding his p’s and q’s to get a gig. The spirit of Punk is carried forward by going beyond the raw visual and aural dissonances that were appropriate to the 70’s to an ideological dissonance that outrages conservatism by pressing on its blind spots. (p. 66–7).
King goes on to argue that the “spirit of Punk” exists today in the “aesthetic-political form of protest”, particularly political art expressed through slogans on placards, posters and tee shirts. She gives the example of creative thinking by anti-war protestors in 2005: arranging public tea parties and holding up blank placards in an attempt to get around the government prohibition on demonstrations in and around Parliament Square. King notes that the blank placard was such a courageous and witty representation of political silencing that it influenced Mark Wallinger’s Tate Gallery installation“State Britain”, which, according to its website, “raises challenging questions about issues of freedom of expression and the erosion of civil liberties in Britain today”.
Another example of modern Punk art, this time suggested by the editor of the same volume, James Bradshaw, is the work of graffiti artist Banksy. Bradshaw argues that Banksy, at least in 2007, ticked all the boxes in terms of being an outsider art form that in its pure form had no commercial value (p. 9). Yet all this seems to beg the following question: do the apparent mutations of Punk retain enough specificity to help define the trajectory of current and future radical protest or are such phenomena merely manifestions of something more universal and timeless of which Punk is only a part? In other words, is there a universal ‘truth’ in Punk that is beyond even Punk itself, and if so, in what terms might this be articulated?
There are certainly resonances between Punk and anarchism, Dadaism, surrealism, the Situationist International, and even, going back to Ancient Greece, the subversive practice of kynicism. Moreover, in the last paragraph of the above quote, where King emphasises Punk’s tendency to ‘deconstruct’ itself, it seems like there are resonances with, for example, the post-anarchism of Saul Newman or the “anarchic meta-politics” of Simon Critchley, with the latter, in particular, eschewing specific organized political programmes in favour of fleeting moments of manifest dissensus.
This unique series of posts on Punk, Law, Resistance will attempt to address some if not all of the provocations above. First up we have Angus McDonald’s “I have set my affair on nothing” in which he demonstrates the power of Punk as an ‘event’ characterized by a reversal of perspective. For Angus, “Punk thinking informs critical legal thinking”. Then we have Ivan Gololobov’s “War and Piss” in which he shows how Punk is alive and kicking, not necessarily in music form and not necessarily in its motherland, through an analysis of the Russian radical art group “Voina” and their encounters with the law. Finally we have Ari Hirvonen’s epic portrayal of Punk as the transgressive politics of boredom in “No Future: Punk against the Boredom of the Law” .